The new book Furious Cool: Richard Pryor And The World That Made Him (Algonquin) by David Henry and Joe Henry may do more to damage Pryor’s legacy than help it. And though the brother authors are clearly in the camp that lists Pryor as the number one stand-up comedian of all time (a position that Comedy Central also takes), there has never been a more stark dichotomy between on stage exploits and personal life. Here’s a guy who made millions split their sides laughing yet was a total scumbag in his personal life. I, for one, a huge Pryor fan my whole life, is still having trouble reconciling my fandom after reading this book.
I guess when your grandmother is the head of a Peoria, Illinois, whorehouse and your mother is one of the whores, that may do something to your worldview of women. Pryor was a lifelong wifebeater. Every comic idolized him…including Freddie Prinze. Both men were deep into cocaine. When Prinze started hanging out with Pryor, it was a recipe for disaster (sorta like Gram Parsons hanging out with Keith Richards). One of the more unforgettable scenes in the book is when Prinze’s girlfriend calls Pryor’s girlfriend at 3:00 in the morning to tell her that Pryor is holding her and Prinze hostage with a gun in his Beverly Hills house. He had snorted up half of Peru and only his girlfriend could talk him down.
He wrote much of Blazing Saddles but no Hollywood producer would let him star in the movie because the word is out that he’s a stick of dynamite waiting to go off. Mel Brooks takes credit for the script and another actor is hired for the role.
Pryor, at six, is molested by Hoss, 14, who forces him to suck his dick. Pryor grows up and starts to enjoy dick-sucking and has to be told by an elder, “Richard, you shouldn’t suck so much dick.” Decades later, Hoss and his young son show up on a line to get Pryor’s autograph.
Pryor is so fucked-up to the people who love him (especially after he discovers how to freebase crack cocaine after a lifetime of simply snorting the stuff), that he purposely tries to burn the demon out from within. What many thought was an accident was actually a suicide attempt and there he runs—on fire—down his street with cops trailing him, recognizing him, and telling him to stop so they can help him and he’s screaming at them, “If I stop running, I’ll die.” Guess he changed his mind.
Pryor was never the same, never as funny again, after the fire. Although he did have one brilliant routine where he actually became the crack pipe on stage in telling the tale, he settled into a bad-movie groove (like Elvis) until multiple sclerosis relegated him to a wheelchair for the last few sad years of his life where all he could do is drool on himself and shake. There’s a pathetic scene toward the end of the book where he watches television and a newscast mistakenly announces his death.
He had suffered a massive heart attack and made it into one of his more brilliant comedy routines. He had brandished his gun upon his lover leaving, shooting out the tires of the car she attempted to use in her escape…and made into a brilliant comedy routine, “killing a car.” And like Jim Morrison of The Doors who either did or did not expose himself on stage in Miami, Pryor either did or did not whip out his dick in Las Vegas and actually piss on his audience…which included some gangsters at a front table. If you believe the story, Bill Cosby had to hide him so he wouldn’t be whacked.
It’s Cosby who knows what a scumbag Pryor is. Pryor blatantly imitated Cosby early on so when Pryor was given an Apollo Theater lifetime award with Cosby the presenter, he’s sitting in his wheelchair drooling on himself and Cosby goes up to him with the award and hands “him his plaque with all the pomp of a classmate returning a borrowed pencil.”
“Bill…” Richard begins to choke up.
“Richard, here’s your award, man. They told me to give you this. I have no idea why you’re getting it.”